If you look at the year-over-year numbers from the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, fewer Homeland Security Department’s employees say they would recommend the agency as a good place to work.
The fiscal 2022 results are two percentage points lower than 2021 when agreeing or disagreeing with a simple statement: “I recommend my organization as a good place to work.”
But like with any survey, the delay between taking action and seeing results to change the culture of a 260,000 person organization can take years.
This is why Sharon Wong, the executive director of the strategic talent recruitment, inclusive diversity and engagement (STRIDE) for DHS, is optimistic about the improvements around employee engagement and recruiting going on across the agency.
“We’re creating mechanisms to hear from employees and how to communicate with them because that’s a big piece of this. But it’s not just communicating these broader sets, it’s about your experiences. It’s about the challenges, and even the successes on the job because this creates opportunities for leadership to understand the employee viewpoint, understand their circumstances, and then say, ‘what can we do?’ Let’s develop action plans that we execute and address where we can because that’s what creates distrust between employees and leaders,” Wong said during the discussion Government Modernization Unleashed: Workforce. “We always say if you make sure that people are included and feel they have a voice, then inclusion really drives engagement. At the end of the day, that’s what we want because when people feel good about what they do, then they’ll go out and accomplish the mission for you.”
Reevaluating how DHS recruits
At the same time, Wong said the agency is changing the way it recruits new employees to be more inclusive, to diversify the workforce and to ensure their policies, procedures and frameworks reflect the changing nature of how organizations bring in new employees.
“We constantly reevaluate our approach and our strategies. I don’t just want to always be putting things in place and not understand whether we actually doing something right,” Wong said. “They guide us so that we can be more intentional because to me, it’s about being more intentional, whether it’s our outreach in our selecting talent, how we’re engaging our employees and retaining them, helping them and also about developing our employees.”
DHS has launched several initiatives to drive that intentionality in both engagement and recruitment.
Kimya Lee, the deputy chief human capital officer for strategic operations for DHS, said the agency is driving better engagement through several efforts, most significantly “jump teams” that go into the field and reinvigorating employee resources groups.
DHS began piloting these multi-disciplined jump teams in the fall of 2022 with the idea of sending headquarter-based leaders to the field to listen to employees concerns and needs.
“It’s really about problem solving around issues. They may seem small. But if you’re living these on a day-to-day basis, these have such an outsized impact on their experience,” Wong said. “An example is going out to the southwest border and sending specialists out to review and replace all equipment. When you think of things like bandwidth, old buildings and even old office equipment, we have teams going out there to fix that stuff. Sometimes it’s just that simple communication about some of the things that we’re finding and fixing, but it makes your life so much better.”
Senior leaders paying attention
Wong said DHS has completed there pilots that features 6-to-12 jump team members who spent about a week or so at the sites listening and learning about what challenge the field employees had and meeting with local agency leaders.
“After that, we come back start briefing it up to our leadership here at headquarters,” she said. “We’re tracking all the issues that we have heard, assigning them to the appropriate person, but not just doing that, we are following up back that they have addressed these problems.”
Lee added DHS decided to create the jump teams after doing focus groups in the field and hearing about their challenges.
“It’s not management or senior leaders that came up with this notion of sending a small group out to the field to see if we could help them to take care of some of their immediate needs. It actually came out of employee who said, this will be really helpful,” she said. “It’s not only just doing, but it’s listening and turning that listening into something that’s actionable.”
The employee resource groups are another way to turn information into actionable change.
Wong said currently there are 12 groups across the department bringing together people of similar backgrounds whether by race or gender or because they are veterans or returning Peace Corps volunteers.
“They serve many purposes. They are for networking and building their community. There are those that do outreach to communities through conferences and such. So it really ranges,” she said. “The sense we get they’re all very excited as our deputy secretary has committed to meeting with at least one every month. To have that kind of exposure and visibility really gets people engaged, that he’s willing to take the time to sit down, listen, champion and advocate for them.”
Every employee is a recruiter
On the recruitment side, Lee said DHS leadership is promoting the concept that all 260,000 employees are recruiters by virtual of telling the good stories of the work they do every day.
“I think that’s why it’s so important for that interplay between being that recruiter understanding what’s going on at DHS. We can’t separate the recruitment part from the employee engagement and morale part,” Lee said. “How we were recruiting three, even two years ago, doesn’t work right now. We had to make a shift. For us, that shift is not only internal as we take care of our employees who are onboarded, but really reimagining and being a little more innovative in how we advertise our jobs and also tapping into future talent.”
That means starting to think about recruiting when potential employees are in middle or high school by ensuring they understand what DHS does every day to keep the nation safe.
Wong added that DHS has signed over two dozen agreements with minority serving institutions as part of expanding their recruitment strategy.
“DHS has been running hiring webinars in advance of recruiting events. At these events, we talk about the event, who are we targeting, what our mission is and the available job opportunities. So people don’t just show up an event without knowing what we are targeting,” she said. “At these webinars, we’re even helping them by providing tips and tools for even how they should write their resumes. We also look at it by generations, what we’re seeing that’s important to the younger generation these days is about our inclusive diversity efforts. So we talk about that not just strictly the mission, but a very holistic picture.”